Winter Planning for the Landscape
January / 22 / 2018
Winter is the time for reflection, for turning inwards and indulging in the dreams and fantasies of the coming spring’s opportunities. Plant catalogs are scoured, wish lists are made and in the mind’s eye a perfect garden is grown months before the ground thaws. Whether is it a vegetable garden, expanding the orchard, putting in berries or installing a new perennial bed there always seems to be an excess of information and choices to wade through. How many plants will fit in a given space? How do we install it so that it won’t require a mountain of work down the line? What are the best varieties, species, cultivars for the site? In some catalogs and nurseries there are literally thousands of offerings and even for the competent gardener it can be hard to fit all the pieces together.
My approach to each garden challenge is to begin with a series of questions to narrow down the options to a digestible number. Each answer eliminates some from the list until we are left with plants that will not only fulfil the client’s goal but be successful once planted. The first questions and observations are basic- How much sun does each area get? What is the soil and drainage like? What are the existing plantings and obstacles?
Looking into the client's or my own goals and visions is the next step- Do we want a low maintenance garden? A particular color scheme? How will we use the landscape, how much time is there for maintenance and appreciation? Is there a particular view desired from the house or are there particular uses for the plants? Some may want an edible landscape that also has the feel of a cultivated perennial garden, while one person may want to explore medicinal and native plants. Each answer will lead to more questions until an understanding of both the gardener and the landscape is achieved and we can get down to the business of choosing suitable candidates for the landscape.
Think of each plant having their own distinct personality and needs. Many are hardy and adaptable, such as several of our lovely native perennials. Some tend to dominate wherever they are placed and need to be balanced with equally assertive plants, such as Achillea millefolium, Anemone robustissima, or Nepeta ssp. Others may require specific soils and care, such as Panax quinquefolius (American ginseng), Hydrastis canadensis (Goldenseal), and other slow growing ephemerals. Some of the desirable native plants for meadows and full sun, such as Lupinus perennis, Helenium autumnale, and Sorghastrum nutans will be quickly overgrown and sickly if planted in rich soil as they are specially adapted to marginal soil with low organic matter. In the wild they are usually found only in newly disturbed soil or very marginal sites where no other plant can thrive.
After compiling a large list of plants suitable to the soil, zone and light of the particular site and take into consideration the client's goals, I organize everything into seasons of bloom or use. For annual and perennial gardens this ensures there is visual interest year round, while for orchards, vegetable and medicinal gardens this will help map the harvest windows and plan the maintenance schedule. This way the crops will come in over a longer period of time instead of all at once in a few weeks, eliminating an overwhelming workload and potential food waste.
Winter is the best time to plan for the coming season's garden for a number of reasons. January and February are the best time to order from various nurseries and is often the way to get perennials plants and fruit trees for a lower price and are also sources for many vegetable, flower and root crops. Weather conditions certainly make time spent at the table planning with a hot beverage more appealing. Looking at pictures of beautiful flowers and green are positively therapeutic for me this time of year (thank you Instagram), and helps me visualize the planning and evolution of a particular space.
Whatever the goal or dream, advance planning can help make the summer months go more smoothly and provide a welcome distraction to winters grey days.